Congress

How many ways is Michigan in play in 2020?

Gary Peters’ re-election bid, presidential race make it a battleground

In Michigan, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is up for re-election in 2020. That race, along with the presidential contest, makes the state a major political battleground. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.

The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.

Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.

Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.

A turnaround?

Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.

Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.

But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.

In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan. 

Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.

Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challenge to Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.

James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters. 

For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.

Numbers tell the story

A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.

No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).

His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.

In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).

Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.

Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.

The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.

Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.

Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.

In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).

The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points. 

The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.

2020 realities

Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.

James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.

Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.

Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.

James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.

Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.

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